The recent tragic events in Lac-Mégantic, Que., have brought a well-deserved sharper focus to the public discourse on the risks of transporting and handling the fuels that power our everyday world. After several years in which pipeline transport of oil has been the fashionable target for those who are inclined to protest elements of our modern world, railways have now moved into the crosshairs. This gives us an opportunity to reconsider how our society assesses and manages the relative risks of transporting and handling energy.
Each form of the energy we rely on has inherent characteristics that result in risks we must manage for our everyday safety. After long periods of usage, society learns what these risks are and, considering the consequences, develops strict codes of safe use. For example, electricity has its dangers, but in its household power or battery forms, it works beside nearly every one of us virtually 24 hours a day. We have created strict codes for the supply and distribution of electricity to power the lights, tools and appliances in our homes, offices and stores. And we expect our vehicle and cellphone batteries to perform for us daily in a safe manner.
Similarly, the majority of our homes and businesses are heated by natural gas. Though that energy source has its own inherent characteristics and risks, we have learned how to manage them to an acceptable level, so that we seldom have a care about the basement furnace that keeps our homes warm, or the machines that transform natural gas into the plastics or fertilizers that are so important to us.
And yet despite these convincing examples of how our society successfully manages energy-handling hazards, we find it easy to nod our heads in recent years when we encounter knee-jerk rants about pipelines or – now – railways.
In the 1990s, after several high-profile ruptures, the Canadian natural gas pipeline industry developed a new system for assessing the safety of its facilities, and with these improved tools reduced its system operations risks in the decades since. Those risk-management approaches became the standard for industry regulations in Canada. Subsequently, following high-profile ruptures in the United States, gas pipeline regulations in that country also evolved to a more risk-based management regime patterned after the Canadian experience.
This demonstrates that we should have some faith in how our society is able to evaluate, regulate and manage risk in the world around us. In response to these high-profile ruptures, the oil pipeline industry (including its regulators) had to develop new protocols, tools and regulations to better handle and reduce hazards. Now it seems it is the rail industry’s turn to upgrade its risk assessment and management protocols to better reflect its circumstances in today’s world.
Gasoline is another example of how comfortable we can be with the everyday use of dangerous materials when we are familiar with safety rules and regulations. Gasoline is highly flammable (high risk, high consequences), but through long experience, we have learned how to safely transport, store and use this fuel. We routinely accept that when we transfer gasoline into our cars, boats or lawnmowers, we must follow certain precautions (don’t smoke, avoid spark-generating activity, use special containers etc.). But gasoline’s value in our everyday lives allows us to accept (and deal with) the hazards of its use, virtually without second thought, even though the risks and consequences are higher than our encounters with other forms of energy.
All of this holds some lessons for us. First, each type of energy we use has unique characteristics that need to be understood. None are inherently good or bad – they just have different values and risks. Second, our society can and does learn how to transport, store and use these energy forms safely, putting in place rules and protocols that reduce risks to a level with which we can all be comfortable.
The public discourse on energy transportation and handling is better served by exhibiting less ranting and demonstrating more perspective.
Kenneth Taylor retired in 2012 after a 35-year career as an environmental-social planner in the natural gas pipeline industry. He lives in Calgary.